Fourth Sunday of Lent – Year C – March 6, 2016
Jos 5, 91.10-12; Ps 34; 2 Cor 5.17 – 21; Lk 15, 1-3.11-32
Fourth Sunday of Lent
Es 17.1 to 11; Ps 35; 1Th 5, 1-11; Jn 9, 1-38b
Sunday of the Blind
1) The joy of mercy.
The Gospel of St. Luke, the writer of the meekness of Jesus Christ (Dante Alighieri called St. Luke “scribe mansuetudinis Christi“), teaches that the Messiah is the incarnation of the merciful presence of God among us. Christ is the presence of love, forgiveness and joy who ‘ commands’: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6, 36). St. Faustina Kowalska wrote: “Mercy is the flower of love, God is love, mercy is His action, in love has his beginning, in manifestation his mercy” (Diary, 2004 Vatican City, II, page 420).
Therefore, on this “Laetare” (rejoice) Sunday and in the context of the Jubilee of Mercy, let’s make our own the invitation of Pope Francis: “Let us entrust ourselves totally to the Father. Let our shoulders of people on our knees be caressed, like those of the prodigal son, by the hands of the Father, whose paternal love is directed to each of us as mercy, that is, as love of God, who leans upon the sinner, the weak and the needy. In this way we can experience the joy of being loved by this “God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in love and faithfulness.”
Do not forget, though, that not only we are in joy because we have been forgiven by the Father, but that we can give to God the joy of forgiving us. The joy of God in forgiving us is the original core of the biblical and Christian message. A wise old French biblical scholar taught: “We cannot give to God anything that He already hasn’t: He is the master of everything! Except for one thing: to give to him the joy of forgiving us. “
The awareness of this divine joy urges us to open ourselves without hesitation to the love of God through conversion, and to belong to him, who welcomes us as his children with a heart full of mercy.
To convert ourselves to this God of mercy and to help us to put into practice the command to be merciful, the Redeemer of the sinful man announces his gospel of forgiveness and joy by telling the parable traditionally called “of the prodigal son”. This Gospel passage that the Liturgy of the Word today offers us, has as refrain the joy to which God calls all when he finds his lost son. To participate in this joy we must share the forgiveness that the Father, prodigal in mercy, grants to the lost son, and accept the invitation to the dinner organized to celebrate the wanderer’s return. In fact, those who do not accept the sinner as a brother, do not accept the “free” love of the Father and are not his children. They are like the older brother, mentioned in the parable, and become angry for the forgiveness granted to the younger brother. Those who cannot forgive and share the joy of the Father drown in their petty justice that knows only punishment, and remain outside the banquet of joy and love.
Mass is for us this banquet of love that begins with a forgiveness asked, given and shared. The Eucharist is the act in which the presence of the sacrificed and risen Christ embraces us in the forgiveness that recreates. Christ, the Bread of life, the mystery of forgiveness and resurrection, makes us be embraced by the Father, by purifying our life of wanderers and becoming food for our exodus. As the return of the prodigal son to the Father’s house was not only the end of a disastrous human adventure, but also the beginning of a new life, a happy story of truth and love, in the same way it is and it will be for us if, on our knees at least with the heart, we ask forgiveness receiving with it the Bread of angels who became Bread for us poor sinners.
In the Eucharistic Bread Jesus gave us his love, which moved him to offer his life on the cross for us. In the Cenaculum, in the first Eucharistic Supper, Christ washed his disciples’ feet, giving this commandment of love: “Just as I have loved you, so you also should love one another” (Jn 13:34). Since this is possible only by remaining united to him like the branches to the vine (see Jn 15, 1-8), the Redeemer has chosen to remain with us himself in the Eucharist so that we could remain in him. When we eat with faith his Body and drink his Blood, his love passes into us and makes us capable of giving our lives for our brothers. (See 1 John 3:16). From here flows the Christian joy, the joy of love.
2) The Prodigal Father.
Let us now examine more closely this parable that I have allowed myself to call “the parable of the Prodigal Father”, because he strives in giving his mercy abundantly and without reserve.
In this story Christ begins by saying: “A man had two sons.” We can see in these sons the representatives of the humanity that is divided into two categories: that of sinners, like the younger son, and that of those who believe themselves righteous, like the eldest son. We are all included.
What may seem odd is that the prodigal son, who makes a mistake, is a less an issue than the son who had always stayed home. This “right one” does not accept that the Father (God) is love and mercy.
Another item to consider is that both of these children have in common the same image of the father as someone demanding and hard. The eldest son says it clearly “I have served you, I’ve been a servant all my life and you do not give me anything”. A father-boss, demanding to be served just as we often imagine God, who compels human freedom with a multitude of rules, orders and prohibitions. The younger son rebels, but at least he calls him father “Father, give me half the share that belongs to me.”
The image that he has of his father is wrong, but it is right what he wants from him: he wants life, plenitude and freedom. This is what a father must give, otherwise what kind of father is he? To this correct request the father answers by dividing his property in two. This may mean that this father would like that the other son too leaves, desires freedom and life, and doesn’t stay at home to act like a slave.
The younger son “gathered all his things and went to a distant country”, because he thought that only far from God he could find happiness. As did Adam. His sin is the same of Adam. Adam wanted to be like God and rebelled against God to be like God.
What happens when we are away from God? We find death because God is life. If God is fullness, far from Him we find emptiness. If God is joy, there is sadness away from Him. If God is freedom, without him we are slaves. The parable of the prodigal son expresses the parable of those who believe that their realization is to go away from God.
In this quest for freedom away from his father, the younger son dissipates all the treasures received: he loses everything. It is the story of mankind who, being the image and likeness of God, far from Him loses the truth of himself, becomes empty, poor and deep immerged in his own limits. He sought freedom far from the father to serve with love, to serve the men who worship idols, make him guardian of pigs and starve him.
Having hit the bottom, the prodigal son, after having squandered the wealth of his father, comes to his senses and decides to return home. The need makes him coming to his senses and beginning to reason. He does not seem very sorry, he has only hunger and says, “How many of my father’s servants have plenty of bread!” Still he believes that he has lost the love of his father and must regain it. But the Father who is generous with love, never stopped loving him. When his son asks for forgiveness, he not even let him talk. His love precedes repentance and conversion. He offers him joyfully a robe, a ring and shoes, the “signs” of being his son. He wants to celebrate the return of the young man, who, overwhelmed by this abundant mercy, finally understands that his father not only had always expected his return but he had always loved him, even when he had forgotten or perhaps hated him.
He is filled with the joy of the Father who immediately throws a party because he has found his son, who has rediscovered his dignity of child. This merciful Father says: “Quickly, bring out a robe, the first one, and dress him”. What was the first garment of Adam? He was naked. His dress was to be the image and likeness of God, namely to be his child. That is our dress, our being children and be always with the father, because he is always father to us. That is our dress, our dignity, our identity.
3) Mother of Mercy
The center of today’s parable is not sin but the mercy of God that we experience especially with Confession. With this sacrament we may, like the prodigal son, encounter, with Christ, the Father of mercy. It is true that sometimes confession is seen more as a trial of accusation than a celebration of forgiveness. Without underestimating the importance of telling one’s own sins, it must be remembered that what is absolutely central in the listening to the sins, is the blessing embrace of the merciful Father. Too often we consider first the sin and then grace. Instead first there is the free, merciful and generous love of God that welcomes and recreates. God does not stop in front of our sin or recoil in front of our offenses, but runs towards us as the merciful father ran to meet his son who with sorrow and humility went back home.
This reflection would still be partial if we would not consider the Mother of Mercy because mercy is a quality of maternal love. The Son, Prodigal = generous in forgiveness, was generated by her to be mercy for mankind. Mary spreads this mercy with a mother’s love and extends it from generation to generation, according to the good plan of the Father, who intimately has associated her with the mystery of Christ and of the Church. Mary is mediator of mercy, refuge of mercy, “door” through which the believer comes to the divine Judge, who is the Son of the woman from Nazareth and a brother to all of us that have become her children at the foot of the cross, children of merciful love.
The consecrated Virgins in the world are called to witness this motherly mercy, taking the Virgin Mary as the model of the cooperation of the woman with God. Of course, the Virgin of Nazareth has received a fullness of exceptional grace to respond perfectly to the unique mission that had been entrusted to her. In his willingness to consider the woman as his first ally, God grants to each woman the grace necessary to fulfill this role, so that this cooperation, despite being free and personal, is always carried out with the strength received from above.
In Mary’s case, the cooperation is of an exceptional kind, for the fact that her maternity is virginal. Every generation of a human being requires the creative action of God and therefore the human cooperation of the parents with this sovereign action. Collaborating with the divine omnipotence, the woman receives her motherhood. A motherhood that in the consecrated Virgin is spiritual, but none the less real and concrete.
The mother’s face, especially the one that is in the Spirit, is a reflection of the face of the Father, who has in him the characters of fatherly and motherly love.
On Lk 15,11-16
AMBROSE; St. Luke has given three parables successively; the sheep which was lost and found, the piece of silver which was lost and found, the son who was dead and came to life again, in order that invited by a threefold remedy, we might heal our wounds. Christ as the Shepherd bears you on His own body, the Church as the woman seeks for thee, God as the Father receives you, the first, pity, the second, intercession, the third, reconciliation.
CHRYS. There is also in the above-mentioned parable a rule of distinction with reference to the characters or dispositions of the sinners. The father receives his penitent son, exercising the freedom of his will, so as to know from whence he had fallen; and the shepherd seeks for the sheep that wanders and knows not how to return, and carries it on his shoulders, comparing to an irrational animal the foolish man, who, taken by another’s guile, had wandered like a sheep. This parable is then set forth as follows; But he said, A certain man had two sons. There are some who say of these two sons, that the elder is the angels, but the younger, man, who departed on a long journey, when he fell from heaven and paradise to earth; and they adapt what follows with reference to the fall or condition of Adam. This interpretation seems indeed a lenient one, but I know not if it be true. For the younger son came to repentance of his own accord, remembering the past plenty of his father’s house, but the Lord coming called the race of man to repentance, because he saw that to return of their own accord to whence they had fallen had never been in their thoughts; and the elder son is vexed at the return and safety of his brother, whereas the Lord says, There is joy in heaven over one sinner repenting.
CYRIL; But some say that by the elder son is signified Israel according to the flesh, but by the other who left his father, the multitude of the Gentiles.
AUG. This man then having two sons is understood to be God having two nations, as if they were two roots of the human race; and the one composed of those who have remained in the worship of God, the other, of those who have ever deserted God to worship idols. From the very beginning then of the creation of mankind the elder son has reference to the worship of the one God, but the younger seeks that the part of the substance which fell to him should be given him by his father. Hence it follows, And the younger of them said to his father, Give me the portion of goods which falls to me; just as the soul delighted with its own power seeks that which belongs to it, to live, to understand, to remember, to excel in quickness of intellect, all which are the gifts of God, but it has received them in its own power by free will. Hence it follows, And he divided to them his substance.
THEOPHYL. The substance of man is the capacity of reason which is accompanied by free will, and in like manner whatever God has given us shall be accounted for our substance, as the heaven, the earth, and universal nature, the Law and the Prophets.
AMBROSE; Now you see that the Divine patrimony is given to them that seek; nor think it wrong in the father that he gave it to the younger, for no age is weak in the kingdom of God; faith is not weighed down by years. He at least counted himself sufficient who asked, And I wish he had not departed from his father, nor had the hindrance of age. For it follows, And not many days after, the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country.
CHRYS. The younger son set out into a distant country, not locally departing from God, who is every where present, but in heart. For the sinner flees from God that he may stand afar off.
AUG. Whoever wishes to be so like to God as to ascribe his strength to Him, let him not depart from Him, but rather cleave to Him that he may preserve the likeness and image in which he was made. But if he perversely wishes to imitate God, that as God has no one by whom He is governed, so should he desire to exercise his own power as to live under no rules, what remains for him but that having lost all heat he should grow cold and senseless, and, departing from truth, vanish away.
AUG. But that which is said to have taken place not many days after, namely, that gathering all together he set out abroad into a far country, which is forgetfulness of God, signifies that not long after the institution of the human race, the soul of man chose of its free will to take with it a certain power of its nature, and to desert Him by whom it was created, trusting in its own strength, which it wastes the more rapidly as it has abandoned Him who gave it. Hence it follows, And there wasted his substance in riotous living. But he calls a riotous or prodigal life one that loves to spend and lavish itself with outward show, while exhausting itself within, since every one follows those things which pass on to something else, and forsakes Him who is closest to himself. As it follows, And when he had spent all, there arose a great famine in that land. The famine is the want of the word of truth.
It follows, And he began to be in want. Fitly did he begin to be in want who abandoned the treasures of the wisdom and the knowledge of God, and the unfathomableness of the heavenly riches.
It follows, And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country.
AUG. One of the citizens of that country was a certain prince of the air belonging to the army of the devil, whose fields signify the manner of his power, concerning which it follows, And he sent him into the field to feed swine. The swine are the unclean spirits which are under him.
BEDE; But to feed swine is to work those things in which the unclean spirits delight. It follows, And he would have filled his belly with the husks which the swine did eat. The husk is a sort of bean, empty within, soft outside, by which the body is not refreshed, but filled, so that it rather loads than nourishes.
AUG. The husks then with which the swine were fed are the teaching of the world, which cries loudly of vanity; according to which in various prose and verse men repeat the praises of the idols, and fables belonging to the gods of the Gentiles, wherewith the devils are delighted. Hence when he would fain have filled himself, he wished to find therein something stable and upright which might relate to a happy life, and he could not; as it follows, And no one gave to him.
CYRIL; But since the Jews are frequently reproved in holy Scripture for their many crimes, how agree with this people the words of the elder son, saying, Lo, these many years do I serve you, neither transgressed at any time your commandment. This then is the meaning of the parable. The Pharisees and Scribes reproved Him because He received sinners; He set forth the parable in which He calls God the man who is the father of the two sons, (that is, the righteous and the sinners,) of whom the first degree is of the righteous who follow righteousness from the beginning, the second is of those men who are brought back by repentance to righteousness.
BASIL; Besides, it belongs more to the character of the aged to have an old man’s mind and gravity, than his hairs, nor is he blamed who is young in age, but it is the young in habits who lives according to his passions.
TIT. BOST. The younger son then went away not yet matured in mind, and seeks from his father the part of his inheritance which fell to him, that in truth he might not serve of necessity. For we are rational animals endowed with free will.
CHRYS. Now the Scripture says, that the father divided equally between his two sons his substance, that is, the knowledge of good and evil, which is a true and everlasting possession to the soul that uses it well. The substance of reason which flows from God to men at their earliest birth, is given equally to all who come into this world, but after the intercourse that follows, each one is found to possess more or less of the substance; since one believing that which he has received to be from his father, preserves it as his patrimony, another abuses it as something that may be wasted away, by the liberty of his own possession. But the freedom of will is shown in that the father neither kept back the son who wished to depart, nor forced the other to go that desired to remain, lest he should seem rather the author of the evil that followed. But the youngest son went afar off, not by changing his place, but by turning aside his heart. Hence it follows, He took a journey into a far country.
AMBROSE; For what is more afar off than to depart from one’s self, to be separate not by country but by habits. For he who severs himself from Christ is an exile from his country, and a citizen of this world. Fitly then does he waste his patrimony who departs from the Church.
TIT. BOST. Hence too was the prodigal denominated one who wasted his substance, that is, his right understanding, the teaching of chastity, the knowledge of the truth, the recollections of his father, the sense of creation.
AMBROSE; Now there came to pass in that country a famine not of food but of good works and virtues, which is the more wretched fast. For he who departs from the word of God is hungry, because man does not live on bread alone, but on every word of God. And he who departs from his treasures is in want. Therefore began he to be in want and to suffer hunger, because nothing satisfies a prodigal mind. He went away therefore, and attached himself to one of the citizens. For he who is attached, is in a snare. And that citizen seems to lee a prince of the world. Lastly, he is sent to his farm which he bought who excused himself from the kingdom.
BEDE; For to be sent to the farm is to be enthralled by the desire of worldly substance.
AMBROSE; But he feeds those swine into whom the devil sought to enter, living in filth and pollution.
THEOPHYL. There then he feeds, who surpassed others in vice, such as are panders, arch-robbers, arch-publicans, who teach others their abominable works.
CHRYS. Or he who is destitute of spiritual riches, as wisdom and understanding, is said to feed swine, that is, to nourish in his soul sordid and unclean thoughts, and he devours the material food of evil conversation, sweet indeed to him who lacks good works, because every work of carnal pleasure seems sweet to the depraved, while it inwardly unnerves and destroys the powers of the soul. Food of this kind, as being swines’ food and hurtfully sweet, that is, the allurements of fleshly delights, the Scripture describes by the name of husks.
AMBROSE; But he desired to fill his belly with the husks. For the sensual care for nothing else but to fill their bellies.
THEOPHYL. To whom no one gives a sufficiency of evil; for he is afar from God who lives on such things, and the devils do their best that a satiety of evil should never come.
GLOSS. Or no one gave to him, because when the devil makes any one his own, he procures no further abundance for him, knowing him to be dead.